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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Friday, January 27, 2006

Fire Watching by Debra Holland

It was a dark and stormy night. Instead of turning on the heater, I lit a fire in the fireplace, and snuggled up to the hearth with an afghan, some pillows, and a book. My cats, Nicky and Pippin, curled up with me, enjoying the warmth of the fire in the cold room. (I live in Southern California, so it’s not freezing.) I had a lazy feeling of contentment, both from reading a good book (The Reign of Shadows by Deborah Chester) and having my cats sleeping on me.

I read for hours, until I finished my book. Then I watched the fire, absorbing it with my writer’s senses and trying to find ways to describe the sensations. Not such an easy task. Fire has been described both orally and in too many books to count since humans first harnessed its power. It’s all been said. It’s all cliché’.

But I made a valiant effort. The easiest to eliminate was smell. No smell. My chimney must draw well. No acrid smell of smoke or ashes. Nothing to describe

The heat on my skin was a welcome warmth. (How many times have I read that? I think I’ve even written it.) But the hand furthest away from the fire soon became icy cold. I solved that problem by turning over on my side, so both hands toasted evenly. (Sound familiar?)

What does a fire sound like? It snaps, it crackles, and it pops. Just like Rice Crispies, and a very cliché. (Well maybe the Rice Crispies analogy isn’t cliché’...or is it?) It took me a long time to come up with another sound description--click. Did you know a fire clicks? It does. It’s more a click than a snap. Yet, if I used that word in a book, it would probably pull the reader out of the story as she or he tried to figure out how a fire clicks. Not a good thing. Then there was the “roar” of the fire, which really sounds like wind, flapping against the lose canvas sails of a boat. Soft flapping, not hard flapping. Great, a wind and water analogy for fire. It just doesn’t work. Yet, that was the perfect description of the sound.

I had more success with the flames. Well not the flames, but the sparks flying up the chimney. They looked like orange shooting stars, only shooting up into the sky, instead of down to earth. Ok, maybe not the best analogy, either. As for the flames, they flicker, they dance, they.... I give up on the flames.

But...what about the embers, glowing copper? I realized they were the exact essence and color of the psychic energy some of my characters use in my romantic science fiction book. I never thought to use a fire analogy when I was writing the book. Maybe I can go back somewhere and add it in. Yay, a practical use for studying fire.

But what I really learned is that some experiences, like being around a fire, are so primal, that the clichéd phrases are THE way to describe them. The words settle into the psyche with a familiarity that instinctively resonates with the reader, in the way something new and fresh wouldn’t.

Interesting. ☺ What do you think?

Debra Holland


At 7:56 AM, Blogger Norah said...

Yes! Sometimes the cliched description is the only description that works! I know some publishers are waging an all-out war on the cliche, which I think is largely a good thing. But sometimes, as you point out so well here, Debra, the innovative description serves only to yank the reader out of the story and remind them that they're reading something an author toiled over. That's never a good thing.


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